thinking theology

Archive for August, 2015

Spiritual Skimming Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In this anecdote from Mark, we hear Jesus chastising the spiritual leadership of his people for mistaking the process of spirituality for the artifacts of religion. This is not a statement against tradition, but about the improper use of tradition.

Think about an apple. Sometimes, the stem is still with the apple, the stem that has united it with the main trunk of the tree through its leaves and branches. The skin protects the apple as it grows. It contains all kinds of valuable nutrients. I use the skins to ferment apple vinegar and make home made pectin to thicken jelly. But not many of us would be satisfied with a pie made only of skins. The flesh inside the apple is juicy and sweet and full of goodness but it needs the skin to reach this stage of wonderful. Once the apple has been eaten, the core remains. Often we throw it out without thinking, but the mystery of the core is the apple secret. It contains the many apple trees of the future. Within one apple, nestling at the star-like centre, lie the seeds that could become five or six trees, producing how many apples?

Every part of the apple is essential. From the nourishment from the tree — where it seems the same as every other apple — to the moment when it is picked and chosen, each apple is unique in itself. One apple is born out of many trees, out of ecological and/or agricultural desire, through careful planning and by happy accident. Religion, too, rises out of collective human longing, and the need to make meaning. Its construction has elements of intention and elements of surprise and inspiration. The stem of each religion, attached by common themes, eventually separates to form something different and unique.

Tradition, the skin that has protected the inner life of the apple, must give way in its own time not because it is less valuable but because its purpose becomes complete. The inner flesh of the apple provides nutrition; it is the fruit that is known for health and growth. An apple a day keeps the doctor away! Its sweetness and satisfaction lasts for a short time, but the memory of it creates a yearning for more. It is consumed in the moment but is remembered by many generations.

And finally the seeds. These are the hope of the future, not just for one moment, one apple, one person, one lifetime, but the promise that life and health and delight are the true experience, the promise of eternal life.

Why does Jesus scold the Pharisees? He is not speaking against the value or power of tradition, but of mistaking one part of the apple for the whole thing. Spirituality begins in the common life, in which one fruit is indistinguishable from another and moves to the particularity of one apple, one person’s experience, only to fall back into the common sea of life, arising from the earth again. The flesh of the apple lives because of the stem, the skin, the elements that bathe it in rain and sunshine. To value only stem or skin would be to miss the pleasure and power of the fruit, to miss the mystery at the centre.

The underlying law that Jesus is addressing is God’s concern for the people of this moment, their needs and dreams, the nature of this particular community. To place tradition ahead of compassion or justice is to mistake the purpose of the whole tree. In the story in Genesis, we bit the apple despite the warning of God and now we have self-awareness and choice. That means that we must be wise and open to the present, neither hoarding the past like dragon treasure, nor lost in the starry dreams of the future. We are called to experience the divine in this moment, this particular situation, whether it is joyful or challenging.

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Spirit and Flesh:One Universe

Continuing to think about John 6 :56ff, we hear again that Jesus is the bread, the wine, the life, the way. Not surprisingly, commentators link these sayings to the great theophany experienced by Moses on Mount Sinai: “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” To see Jesus is to see the One with whom he is filled and Jesus is the one who has been sent in this case. Of course, this would border on blasphemy for many. Not even the great prophet Elijah made such a claim, nor Moses, nor the prophets. To manage a current way to reflect on this passage, we need to think about one more interaction between Moses and the divine.

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’

In these Exodus stories, we are offered deep and shattering assumptions. It invites us to rethink our basic premises about the nature of the divine. In many ways, the old pantheon of the gods still controls our theological thinking. We imagine the divine to be like us, but Genesis says that we are like the divine. This juxtaposition means that we continually create gods to be like us, with our cultural, limited biases. What the scripture calls us return to is the idea that the divine presence cannot be contained by our myths, our language, our culture or our assumptions.

God can only be called Life or Being. There is no effigy that can tell us anything except about ourselves, no theology that is not limited by our era and our awareness, our knowledge. Is God the bread that we eat to live? Yes. Is God the blood that courses through our veins, the rivers that run to the sea, the ice bergs that crash at the poles? Yes. Does God fully inhabit Jesus of history? Yes. When we are tuned into the connectedness of all Being, all Life, is Jesus present with us? Yes. Are his words the language of eternal life? Yes, because he invites us onto his reality of a world pulsating with life. To see Jesus, then, is, to use Marcus Borg’s words, to see what God would look like in human form. To accept the broad expanse of God’s life, transcendent and incarnate is to experience eternal life. Like electricity, we carry it within the body but it exists beyond us also.

A Buddhist philosoper, Thich Nhat Hanh comments:

“…we must distinguish between the “I” spoken by Jesus and the “I” that people usually think of. The “I” in His statement is life itself, His life, which is the way. If you do not really look at His life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honour Jesus.” The “I am” to which he referred is the Ground of Being of the universe. It is God, who manifests within us as the loving observer in mindfulness practice. The historical personality of Jesus is a metaphorical door for us to open into this
“I am” experience.

Since it is not only Jesus who stands at this door, but all people who tap into the experience of the God of Life within who greets the God of all Being and beings, the invitation of Jesus is without boundary or condition. To experience eternal life, we first divest ourselves of all the limiting fear and prejudice that we have learned. We need to be free to dive into the ocean that is life and that contains life. The invitation is not to become a christian, but to become alive. Like Jesus, our path is to connect with others and to be the connection for others. A universe in a grain of sand, a holy grain of sand in a universe of possibility.

I

Word is Flesh

The Word is Flesh

This time of year means making jams and pickles for the pantry, sauces and corn for the freezer, a time to preserve the deliciousness of summer for the cold days of winter. Nothing is as bright as the sunshine of peaches in January. One of my dear friends asks me if I know that there are excellent grocery stores in Canada. But when I go into my basement and I see all the jars gleaming in their jewel tones, like found art, waiting to be rediscovered, then a strange joy fills me. The sacrifice of my labour has preserved memory and taste, has made art out of food, has provided delight beyond seasonal limitation.

Rupert Sheldrake and Matthew Fox in their book, Natural Grace, commented on the sacrificial nature of life on this planet. Nothing lives without consuming another part of life. We are all bound together in this, from microbial life to human beings. Sacrifice, that is the holy offering of the self, is not a religious concept but an acknowledgement of reality.

All of this is by way of dealing with that difficult passage from John 6:52ff. In the text it says that the other Judeans and Jesus’ disciples were having a difficult time with this saying:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

Is anyone surprised that the listeners would have a hard time? Every time I preach on this passage, I have to think creatively and openly. I think it is entirely possible, and even likely, that Jesus never said this, but that John is explaining his sacrificial/incarnational theology. I don’t think a Jew could possibly think about blood and flesh in this way, particularly since it could be literally translated as gnawing on the flesh of Jesus. Read Leviticus 17.

10 “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. 12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.
13 “Any one also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. 14 For the life of every creature[a] is its blood: its blood is its life.[b] Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.

Nor do I believe that John is connecting to the new religion of Mithras, eating the flesh of the bull god, or the older religion of Bacchus, drinking the wine that leads to killing the god. As Mark Davis points out in his commentary, John is turning us around to look at the sacrifice/incarnation question again, not about ritual food at all.

In Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we hear the prophetic passages that relate to Torah as the food of the people. It is the word that gives life and is shared through the prophets. It is the word that inhabits them and gives them strength and vision. To immerse oneself in Torah is to see with prophetic eye and mind.

Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts. Jeremiah 15:16

But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey. Ezekiel 2;8

In the introduction to the gospel of John, the author describes Jesus in this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Another discussion point comes from the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says that he comes not to abolish, but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

John wants us to accept Jesus as living Torah, not a scroll, but a life, and a way of life as was intended always. We are to immerse ourselves in his way of life, in his teachings, in his heart and in his vision. Later in the church, this passage became distorted but I think it began as John pulling together the living and holy presence of Jesus, in scripture and as scripture, in relationship with the Divine and as the divine. Jesus invites his followers here to wrap themselves in this practice, this text upon which to meditate, body and word indistinguishable one from the other.

In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes,

The sacramental function of the Bible is also suggested by language of eating, feeding upon, and digesting it. In the Bible itself, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the author of Revelation all speak of ‘eating’ God’s words. . . .The Bible becomes nourishment, God’s word becomes daily bread. Like Jesus, the Bible is both the ‘Word of God ‘and the ‘bread of life’.

it is a common thing to say there is living and then there is real living. To live into the Way of Jesus, we need the sacred texts, illuminated by his life and our lives. To see the miracle in the everyday, we need to treasure the incarnation of grace, in Jesus and in everything that is. As we feed our bodies, so we must feed our souls with the wisdom of the ages, the stories of Jesus, and the common table at which, through tiny morsels, we grow into cosmic body that spans history and cultures, eras and always new possibility. That means letting go of our isolation and allowing ourselves to be shared with the world, just as the world share itself with us. And in that cosmic unity, mysteriously, we become one with the Christ who lives within the Holy, embracing us today as always.

What’s to Believe

What’s to believe in?

When we say to someone that we believe in them, what do we mean? If belief means to trust someone, to entrust them with our confidence, to commit ourselves to them, why would we say that? Usually if I say that I believe in someone, I want them to feel encouraged by me. I want other people to join me in my support of this person. Now I would not tell someone else who is my height (that is, short) that I believe they can be the world’s most famous basketball player nor would I suggest that a tone deaf person should consider themselves the next Pavarotti. So if I tell someone that I believe in them it is because I think they can achieve their objectives and I want to be on their team as an actor or a cheerleader.

In John 6:35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Since his lifetime, people have continued to hunger and thirst for food and water. No matter how we manage this passage, literally or metaphorically, people continue to hunger and thirst for peace, for justice, for compassion, for hope. Many have lost faith in Jesus because of what this text seems to offer and the reality of the last 2,000 years.

If we read on, Jesus cautions his listeners against looking for signs, for proof texting, for explanations, or now in our time, excuses. So if he does not mean this as a sign or a prediction, what else can we read here. I think one of our problems is in a misunderstanding that the improvement of human life is a task to be accomplished rather than a process to be nurtured and worked on. Hunger and thirst, both literal and metaphorical, is a quality of human nature. We will always struggle by learning new ideas and possibilities and they will bring us new problems and also new satisfaction.

I think that following Jesus means to stop looking for final solutions and to embrace the wide open life in which anything is possible and anything may happen. Believing in Jesus means to accept the long road of both joy and suffering, while trusting that life is lived within the cosmos of the divine, that all things come together, neutrino and universe, micro and macro perceptions of life. Whether it is a telescope or a microscope, we will continue to see the same patterns repeated from the infinitesimal to the infinite. To live without anxiety about outcomes requires creativity and curiosity. In the Way of Jesus, it means also to feel connected to others and to the creation, to see the life force in a shard of beach glass, the laughter of an old person delighting in still yet another surprise, in the holiness of all new born life.

Compassion, feeling with, walking alongside, is how we are to treat others. Challenge and learning, despite our fears, are the transit stations to new life. And eternity is the time frame in which we are working because, as the followers of Jesus, we know that we cannot be separated form the divine, from Jesus, or from life itself. Within the grace of Jesus, we find that we are intrinsically part of all that is unfolding and growing within and beyond us. The first disciples experienced the resurrected Jesus when they talked and walked together, when they prayed and when they ate together. Jesus is, flesh of our flesh and flesh of the Holy One, one life lived in unity with all that is. In Jesus, we see the divine not only around and beyond us, but within. The mystery of holiness transcended, incarnate and manifested in Jesus, so that we might suddenly and forever be captured by this reality in everything we see and experience. That is the mystery into which we are invited. Our job is to invite everyone else into the riches of grace and vision that is indeed more than we can ask or imagine.

Living Not Believing

Let’s think about the English word belief. Our word comes from old Germanic meaning dear, esteemed, trust. In Hebrew the word is leha’amin, meaning to commit to or support. In Greek it is pisteou, also suggesting to entrust or support. The way we hear the word in our time is to accept something as unconditional truth or proven fact. It is an odd development in a scientific world where everything can be subjected to scrutiny, where all knowledge is understood to be contingent.

For example, we know that light can be understood to be either a ray or a particle depending on how it is measured. Maybe someday we will understand it in yet another dimension. If you travel to Sudbury, you can see where they capture neutrinos that are almost imaginary in their tinyness. Now there are even smaller particles, previously unknown and unimaginable.

When I was a kid, we had a neighbour who persistently argued that the earth was flat. When the Americans landed on the moon, he insisted it was a hoax. He believed that there was nothing new to learn or to discover. Now we know that nothing is necessarily fixed. Our knowledge is constantly changing and growing. In this world, all facts are just until we learn more.

Indeed, it is impossible to get witnesses to reliably tell the same story. Look at the gospels and the writing of Paul. Distinctly different understandings of who Jesus was, how he lived, and why we remember him. And we all know what happens to family stories, how they are transformed in re-telling. Our understanding of history is equally permeable. Look at insights into World War 2, into the era of colonization, into the twisting of truth that is called “spin.” It is impossible to tell any truth, because everything we know is partial, and subject to amendment.

Thus the Jews would not say the name of God, because to name the Holy One, was to minimize, alter, or distort the truth of the divine existence. So how does this affect faith? Next week, we will refer specifically to Jesus, but I want to remain more general this morning. What would be the difference if we remained seated or knelt for the creed, instead of snapping to attention facing the rising sun.

And we might say:

I support One God.

I entrust myself to One God

I commit myself to One God.

How do changes in posture or language affect what we think and hold dear? Do we have the courage to say that we are still learning about God, about Jesus? Can we envision a Christian faith that is not about the certainty of facts, but of relationship and ongoing experience? Jesus teaches no theology, no dogma. He says, “Follow me.” That is action. He says, “Love each other.” That is relationship.

What if we lifted the idea of wonder and mystery as high as we raised word and truth? How would this change us? These are important questions.

Over my ministry, I have heard many people tell me about the things they don’t believe in. It is rare for someone to tell me how their imaginations and dreams are stimulated by the stories of God. If we want the Way of Jesus to be revitalized and energized, we have to give up the word believe and trade it in for words like hope and trust.

Here is a little Persian story about testing reality. One moonlit night, a goose came to a river. Although the bank was teeming with grubs, she noticed something shining in the water. Without further thought, she dove into the water, but the gleaming body eluded her. The next night, she came again to the pond, but she caught nothing. When she looked up in exasperation, she saw the full moon. “What a foolish goose I am. It was only ever the moon shining on the water.” On the third night, when the moon had begun to wane, the goose came again to the river bank. She noticed something shining near the bank but she thought, “Oh no, you won’t fool me again.” And she began to have a big meal of grubs. With a sigh of relief, the silver trout swam away into the stream, through the band of moon shadow.

stonehenge 1

To quote Thomas Moore: to keep our idea of truth alive and humane, it may help to use the word always in the plural. There are many truths. If you happen upon one, it may be comforting. But don’t dwell too long there, or you will miss the next truth, which will be equally important.”

Again he tells this story: Someone once said to Nasrudin, “They say your jokes are full of hidden meanings. Are they?” “No” “Why not?” “Because I have never told the truth in my life, not once; nor will I ever be able to do.” (from Parabola, Winter 2003)

Praise the God of mystery and infinite possibility!